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In Dover, a Wooded Wonderland

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On soft summer evenings, Tonda Parks unwinds on a chaise on the patio and surveys her garden.

While most folks might see beds of shade-loving plants amid stands of oak, hickory and beech trees, her perspective is unique.

“I see rooms,” she says. “This is my room with a view.”

Parks and her husband, Joe, have transformed a large, level, wooded lot in suburban Dover into a series of open-air vignettes that can be enjoyed for solitary contemplation or large-scale social events.

When the couple bought the property 25 years ago, it encompassed a Cape Cod-style house, a yard with lots of trees and not much else.

To establish a place for outdoor entertaining, they decided to build a deck, 16 feet by 24 feet, in the middle of the yard. With the help of Tonda’s brother and a friend, they started building the foundation on a Friday.

The homeowners reflect on their peaceful property.

“Then we went to happy hour with some friends and told them what we were doing,” Tonda says. “The next day they started coming one by one with their tool belts to help us.”

Many hands made for quick work. By the end of the weekend, the Parkses had a completed deck.

How the garden grew

Over time, the deck evolved into a pavilion. First was the addition of a series of wide steps that created a grand entry, as well as space for more seating. Next came a roof and partial walls. The couple brought in a contractor to install the crowning touch, the cupola that tops the pavilion.

Today, the pavilion is a conversation area, with cozy cushioned seating. White cotton curtains flutter in the breeze. Citronella torches add to the ambiance at night with the added benefit of keeping insects away.

A garden shed resembles a rustic cabin, complete
with a vintage cast-iron stove on the front porch.

The pavilion was such a success, the couple built more infrastructure. They store tools and equipment in a garden shed that looks like a rustic cabin. The vintage cast iron stove on the shed’s front porch came from a hunting lodge in Pennsylvania, owned by Joe’s family. 

“Many of the pieces in the garden came from friends who had things they didn’t need any more,” Tonda says. “It has gotten to the point where people automatically call us because they know we are always recycling things.”

Two walls in the freestanding bar room are covered in a floor-to-ceiling tableau of tropical palms silhouetted against an orange sunset, with stars twinkling in the night sky.

“The panels are actually shower curtains,” Tonda says. “We hung icicle Christmas lights behind them for the stars.” 

Outdoors meets indoors

What was once a small side yard is now the North Patio, an intimate seating and dining area decorated like a street-side bistro. The terra cotta tile decking mirrors the tile floor inside the house, enhancing the flow.

“Everything on the outside was designed to be an extension of the inside, and vice versa,” Tonda says. “This was an empty yard, unused space. I thought, Why not cut a hole in the walls and put in French doors?”

On warm evenings, the doors are left open, creating an open passageway between indoor and outdoor spaces. 

The seating area is defined with a sisal-like indoor-outdoor carpet and furnished with two wicker settees, accented with colorful cushions changed to reflect the seasons. 

A round dining table surrounded by wrought-iron garden chairs is glam with gold chargers and goblets painted in a cheetah print. A fence built from horizontal wood planks is treated like a wall, decorated with candle sconces, iron and brass art pieces, and a large mirror with a white molded frame the Parkses’ daughter rescued from the curb on trash day. Brass lanterns mounted on swags shimmer overhead.

“We have had dinner on our deck in December,” Tonda says. “If there’s an opportunity to dine al fresco, we do it.

A gathering place

The pavilion, deck and bar are wired for electricity and cable to enhance opportunities for entertaining. In the fall, the couple installs TVs for game day parties.

It’s a garden designed with sharing in mind. The couple invited 200 guests to celebrate Tonda’s 60th birthday. Each year, they host a soirée to benefit the CenDel Foundation, a charitable organization that supports philanthropy in Central Delaware. 

“We enjoy the garden when we have people over—and also when it’s just the two of us,” she says.

Winding paths of pea gravel connect the various spaces. There are many visual delights and places to pause along the way. Wrought-iron chaises and seats are tucked among groves of rhododendrons. A large mirror, another gift from a recycling friend, treats visitors to an expansive view of hosta, ferns, impatiens and Solomon’s seal. 

The outdoor rooms are defined with the creative use of architectural elements. Wood-framed windows are suspended on wires in mid-air. An archway is the entry from the patio to the deck and rear garden. A chandelier twinkles over a dining table.

After a quarter century of improvements, the couple recently put the finishing touch on the last remaining snippet of the garden. They cleared out a few shrubs in the corner of the property to make way for a whimsical “bed”—a gently sloping mound of mosses and other low-growing plants, defined with a metal headboard and footboard at either end.

“We call it ‘the final bed,’” Tonda says. “And the final bed really is the final bed.”


GET THE LOOK

Reimagine everyday items. In the garden bar, shower curtains and icicle lights are transformed into a shimmering tropical mural. A large mirror is a vertical play on a reflecting pond. Turn on the juice. Electrical and cable service allow the Parkses to expand opportunities to entertain with such options as televisions so guests can watch the big game. Decorate organically. The centerpieces for a dinner party are impatiens and other plants borrowed from the garden. Extend the season. Light a fire pit and enjoy the patio on a cool autumn night. Dine al fresco on an unseasonably warm winter evening. Take on what you can—and leave the things you can’t or don’t want to do to the pros. With the help of family and friends, the couple built a large deck. They hired a contractor to build the cupola on top.

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